I started with the Midwest region – and you can see those picks here.

Let’s dive into the South:

(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Texas Southern

Vegas Line: UNC -27

KenPom: #3 North Carolina 88, #208 Texas Southern 66

Location: Greenville, South Carolina

Texas Southern has one of the worst team 3P% in the country.

Winner: North Carolina

(8) Arkansas vs. (9) Seton Hall

Vegas Line: Arkansas -1

KenPom: #37 Arkansas 74, #52 Seton Hall 73

Location: Greenville, South Carolina

Seton Hall and Arkansas both want to pound the rock inside. Neither rely on the 3-pointer to win, so this one will come down to efficiency, rebounding, and the FT line.

The Pirates are a stronger overall rebounding team, and will take advantage specifically on the offensive end where they excel at second chance opportunities (Arkansas is in the bottom 50 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage). I like Angel Delgado to put up another double-double and lift Seton Hall into the round of 32.

Winner: Seton Hall

(5) Minnesota vs. (12) Middle Tennessee

Vegas Line: Middle Tennessee -1

KenPom: #33 Minnesota 67, #46 Middle Tennessee 65

Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

This is one of the most popular upset picks of the first round, with Middle Tennessee actually becoming the favorite in Vegas since the betting opened at Minnesota -1.5.

Minnesota is clearly over-seeded a bit here, and Middle Tennessee is a tournament darling since beating Michigan State last year. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of a Middle Tennessee upset twice.

The Minnesota defense is rated 17th nationally on KenPom, and will give Middle Tennessee a lot of trouble. On the flip side, Middle Tennessee has a top 50 defense and might be able to put Minnesota’s less than stellar offense in similarly difficult positions. I do not think this game is going to be pretty; these are teams that want to get inside the paint and grind you out defensively.

This is not your typical upset in that Middle Tennessee wants to play the same game as Minnesota; they are not going to beat the Gophers with a barrage of 3s and bench celebrations. This game will be about who can withstand a few gut punches, and I honestly think Minnesota is more prepared for that. These players have been hearing all week on ESPN that they are ripe for the upset – and I don’t see it.

The main reason: I think free throws can decide a game like this, and Minnesota excels at playing straight-up defensively without getting into foul trouble. Middle Tennessee is bottom 50 in the country in FTR (getting to the line and making them). On the other end, Minnesota is 70th in FTR offensively, while MT is prone to fouling (228th in defensive FTR). Minnesota wins a close one with the FT line as its friend.

Winner: Minnesota

(4) Butler vs. (13) Winthrop

Vegas Line: Butler -11

KenPom: #26 Butler 78, #111 Winthrop 67

Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Butler is coming off two straight bad performances, ending the season with a home loss to Seton Hall and a Big East tournament loss to Xavier.

Winthrop has only lost once since February, and is on an 8 game winning streak entering the NCAA Tournament. They have played three marquee opponents, going 1-2 with a win at Illinois and two losses at Florida State by 14 and Dayton by 16.

The Big South champions are going to try to speed the game up and knock Butler out with the three ball – but Chris Holtmann’s team defends the arc well. I think this one has a chance to be closer than the experts think, but I like Butler’s grind it out approach to shine through and get them through to the next stage.

Winner: Butler

(6) Cincinnati vs. (11) Kansas State

Vegas Line: Cincinnati -3.5

KenPom: #22 Cincinnati 65, #28 Kansas State 62

Location: Sacramento, California

This game is not going to be pleasurable for anyone involved. Kansas State wants to drag Cincy into the muck, and the Bearcats are willing to go there.

ESPN picks this as its 2nd most likely Giant Killer game, and I’m going to roll with it! Kansas State continues the trend of first four teams advancing and wins a close one here.

Winner: Kansas State

(3) UCLA vs. (14) Kent State

Vegas Line: UCLA -18

KenPom: #18 UCLA 88, #141 Kent State 73

Location: Sacramento, California

There has been a lot of high praise for Lonzo Ball and UCLA. They have become a trendy pick to win the national championship. I’m not ready to jump to that conclusion just yet… they have some issues defensively and are especially susceptible to teams with good ball handlers that can shoot.

Kent State is not one of those teams.

Winner: UCLA

(7) Dayton vs. (10) Wichita State

Vegas Line: Wichita State -6

KenPom: #8 Wichita State 77, #35 Dayton 70

Location: Indianapolis, Indiana

It’s a shame Archie Miller’s team got matched up with Wichita State here. I would have liked Dayton against any other 10-seed. Unfortunately, the Shockers are grossly under-seeded, and statistically one of the best teams in the country.

Wichita will expose the main difference between these two teams: rebounding. Wichita is one of the strongest defensive rebounding teams, while Dayton struggles on the offensive glass. Barring something like a Charles Cooke or Scoochie Smith (A+ name) three-point onslaught, Gregg Marshall will move on to the second round.

Winner: Wichita State

(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Northern Kentucky

Vegas Line: Kentucky -20

KenPom: #4 Kentucky 87, #147 Northern Kentucky 68

Location: Indianapolis, Indiana

Kentucky has received plenty of adulation for its young offensive studs Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, but people do not seem to realize how strong this team is defensively. Kentucky is fast as hell, and they can score with anyone as displayed in its loss to UCLA and win over UNC earlier this season. (Get ready to see those matchups again…) But where they have had issues, especially in those games, is on the defensive end.

I’ll dive into them more in their next game against Wichita State. The Norse do not have the fire power to match up here with the Cats.

Winner: Kentucky

THE SECOND ROUND

(1) North Carolina vs. (9) Seton Hall

KenPom: #3 North Carolina vs. #52 Seton Hall

Location: Greenville, South Carolina

Seton Hall has not had to play with the size and length and athleticism that North Carolina has. This game will be reminiscent of last year’s round of 32 game between UNC and Providence, where Providence just ran out of steam. Ben Bentil getting into foul trouble in that game could be duplicated by Angel Delgado… and if the Pirates have to play without the big fella, it would be lights out for Seton Hall.

I think North Carolina is susceptible to the right opponent, but Seton Hall isn’t that.

Winner: North Carolina

(4) Butler vs. (5) Minnesota

KenPom: #26 Butler vs. #33 Minnesota

Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

While I think Minnesota survives the Middle Tennessee upset bid, I don’t think they will be able to use that approach to get past Butler. The Bulldogs welcome a physical game, and will not get overwhelmed by the Gopher defense.

Butler is well balanced and filled with an experienced roster, and it will carry them to the Sweet Sixteen. Kelan Martin and Andrew Chrabascz keep the party going.

Winner: Butler

(3) UCLA vs. (11) Kansas State

KenPom: #18 UCLA vs. #28 Kansas State

Location: Sacramento, California

Kansas State will do its best to slow UCLA down and control the tempo, so this is where Lonzo Ball will be vital. The Bruins will keep the game moving, attacking the rim from all angles.

Bruce Weber’s team simply will not be able to keep up. They have defended the three-point line well so far this year, but they haven’t experienced an offense like UCLA’s. Oklahoma State is the most comparable, and while Kansas State split the season series with the Cowboys, they gave up 88 points in a win and 80 points in a loss. UCLA’s defense outranks Oklahoma State’s.

Winner: UCLA

(2) Kentucky vs. (10) Wichita State

KenPom: #4 Kentucky vs. #8 Wichita State

Location: Indianapolis, Indiana

This is going to be the best game of the weekend. Kentucky is going to want to run and speed up the game, while it is in Wichita’s best interest to slow the tempo and keep the paint packed against the Wildcats.

Neither team has a true weakness, but the closest to one would be Kentucky’s streakiness and lack of 3-point threats outside of Malik Monk. When Monk is struggling from the field, Kentucky is a mess. Wichita shoots the second highest 3P% in the tournament field, but does not rely on the long ball too much. They are well balanced; they get to the FT line; they rebound well. Wichita is TOUGH, and they haven’t lost since January 14.

But when Kentucky is playing well, they are just too difficult to beat. They have athleticism everywhere, and I just lean on talent when the competition is this close.

Winner: Kentucky

THE SWEET SIXTEEN:

(1) North Carolina vs. (4) Butler

KenPom: #3 North Carolina vs. #26 Butler

Location: Memphis, Tennessee

If this matchup comes to fruition, Butler can certainly give North Carolina fits. They would need to slow the game, pack it in defensively, and hope UNC shoots at or below average.

Honestly, I just think this Tar Heels team is similar to last year’s. They have size and athleticism everywhere and a guard in Joel Berry that runs the show. Their Achilles heel will be 3-point shooting – and the team that knocks them out will have to take advantage on that front to win. (Note: this wasn’t the case last year surprisingly, as UNC hit 11 of 17 from deep in the national championship game… but you could say the three-point shot ended up knocking them out)

 

North Carolina won’t get overmatched here by Butler, and it will take a near perfect game for the Bulldogs to pull this off. I’m banking on that not happening.

Winner: North Carolina

(2) Kentucky vs. (3) UCLA

KenPom: #4 Kentucky vs. #18 UCLA

Location: Memphis, Tennessee

UCLA beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena earlier this season, 97-92. Six UCLA players were in double figures, and they got the W despite 44 combined points from Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox.

UCLA will likely be in a similarly hostile environment in Memphis (a short 6 hour drive for BBN!) – and I don’t see this one playing out with quite the explosiveness. I think John Calipari would use his week of preparation to get his team ready defensively. With NBA scouts EVERYWHERE in Memphis, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox will not let Lonzo Ball get the best of them again. Defense wins championships, and this is where it all catches up to the Bruins.

Winner: Kentucky

THE ELITE EIGHT:

(1) North Carolina vs. (2) Kentucky

KenPom: #3 North Carolina vs. #4 Kentucky

Location: Memphis, Tennessee

That 6-hour drive isn’t so long for Big Blue Nation when North Carolina is on the schedule!

A rematch of the best game of the season, Kentucky beat North Carolina 103-100 in Las Vegas in December behind 47 points by Malik Monk. This time, we can only hope for something even remotely similar.

I have been talking up the Kentucky defense throughout this write-up, and I am sticking with it. This Kentucky team has gotten a lot stronger on the end of the floor since mid-December. To quote John Calipari, “The biggest thing is we got really good players. If we defend, we’ll have a chance in every game we play. If we just come out and say, we’re going to be the best defense. We’ll score just because of our talent, our speed, the ability to shoot the ball from different positions.” I am betting on them being a team that has gotten consistently better since November – and they are will continue getting better on the road to Phoenix.

Winner: Kentucky

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